Some Random Dude’s Top 10 Reads of 2017
This year, like other years, I read stuff.
And some of it was pretty good. So I figured I’d share my favorite books of 2017 along with my strongly biased summaries of them. The goal is to give you another data point to consider when choosing what to read next, based on the opinion of either a stranger on the internet or, if I know you (hi!), based on how much you like me (or, more likely, don’t).
I won’t bore you with my struggle to become a persistent reader, or how becoming one made me, as Business Insider promised, one of the world’s most highly effective CEOs (I think? I don’t really know), or how because of it I now own many books — none leather-bound, most bought second-hand because I’m fiscally prudent like that.
Instead, I will get right to it. After two paragraphs of stuff that I needed to make this look like a real article.
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Nominally, it’s about a woman who’s obsessed with bringing the family together for one last Christmas. But this is one of those books for which ‘what it’s about’ feels like the wrong question to ask. It’s about corrections writ large — corrections like being in the wrong and being corrected, and corrections like changing one’s path, like trying to improve. In a sense, Franzen does what a lot of the best fiction aims to do: trace the character’s inner worlds as they bounce from one correction to the next. The result is a powerful slice of life rendered through the lens of one of America’s most gifted writers.
Life, in her experience, had a kind of velvet luster. You looked at yourself from one perspective and all you saw was weirdness. Move your head a little bit, though, and everything looked reasonably normal.
2. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
FUCK. This book was awesome. I think about age and ageing a lot and Egan takes this difficult theme head on. This sorta-postmodern Pulitzer winning novel unfurls a map of characters, each so real — so very human. The style really works too: the stories jump back and forth through time and space and includes some cool stylistic experimentation (be warned: there’s a PowerPoint deck masquerading as a narrative device). Taken together, the havoc that time can wreak on our body and mind is laid bare, and Egan pulls no punches — but the result isn’t some lugubrious dirge on how we all grow old and die, but a story full of vitality about things that really matter.
We’re there, the three of us, like before. We’re back at the beginning. He’s stopped crying. He’s looking at his world. The pool, the tiles. We never did get to Africa, or anywhere. We barely left this house. ‘Nice to be. With you girls’, he says, fighting to breathe. Clutching our hands, as if we might flee. But we don’t. We look at the pool and we listen to the birds. ‘Another minute,’ he says. ‘Thank you, girls. One more. Like this.’
3. On Writing by Stephen King
A lovely, heartwarming yet pragmatic guide to the art of writing from a master of the craft. It’s part memoir, part exploration of the writer’s toolbox in a way that never feels deductive or patronizing.
A couple of my favorite takeaways:
- Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. In other words, your stuff starts out just for you; once you get it as right as you can, send it out
- Language doesn’t always have to wear a tie and lace up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader feel welcome and then tell a story
- Locals and texture are more important than physical description… a few well chosen details that will stand for everything else… Fresh images, simple vocab
4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This one is heavy. And beautiful.
It’s heavy by virtue of its plot: at the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln visits the crypt of his 11-year-old son Willie, whom he recently lost to typhoid fever. There we discover a world of ghosts in limbo, living a full — though mostly miserable — life and staunchly resisting pressures to move on to their next destination.
It’s beautiful by virtue of Saunders himself, fascinated as he is with exploring the imperfections, the crumbs, the bruises of our humanity. We laugh with his misanthropes and we cry at the realness of the world they inhabit, fictional as it may seem.
He was the sort of child people imagine their children will be, before they have children.
5. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
An old-school comedy classic. It’s about, well, three men in a boat (and also a dog) and it’s pretty hilarious. What I found most interesting is how poignant, relevant and sharp the humor remains in a book that was written in the late 1800s. With minor tweaks to the style, I could easily be convinced it was published last week. If you’re looking for a light read that’s also full of heart, this hits the spot. Also, Jerome K. Jerome is kind of an epic name.
People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper and more easily obtained.
6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel
A powerful work on finding meaning. By a man. who is looking for his own meaning. More or less.
Just kidding — there’s SO much here. In the first part, Frankel, a psychologist and neurologist, reflects on how he found fulfillment and meaning in the worst imaginable circumstances: the Auschwitz death camp. He finds meaning not only despite the cruelty around him, but also in the banality of everyday camplife. It’s truly an exercise in filter-cleaning, or maybe just a calibration of the lenses through which we see and interpret things. And sometimes that’s all we need.
The second part of the book is a little denser, building out the foundation of logotherapy, the psychoanalytic school of thought arguing that meaning (rather than, for instance, power or pleasure) is our most powerful motivator. It’s convincing and, no doubt, life changing, wherever you are in your life.
Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you’re going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued: it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself.
7. Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose by Tony Hsieh
Here Hsieh traces his career successes and failures on the path to building Zappos, one of the largest online retailers around. ‘It’s more fun,’ Hsieh quotes Winnie the Pooh, ‘to talk with someone who doesn’t use long difficult words but rather short easy words like “what about lunch?”’. I think this summarizes his approach to life quite well, and also the idea behind this book — an easy read, but not a simple one.
At its core, it’s an honest look at values, values which led him to incredible professional success, but also to losing almost everything. It is these values, it seems to me, that drive the three P’s in the title: Profits, Passion and Purpose.
Highly recommended as a book that will make you question your own path, your own values, and after some exploration, leave you the better for it. It’s definitely not only for aspiring for entrepreneurs (although should be very high on your booklist of you are).
One of my favorite specific takeaway was his framework for happiness:
- Perceived control: feeling like you have options, autonomy and choice
- Perceived progress: feeling like you’re getting better and can see the improvement curve. He mentions a cool study that found that three small promotions felt more satisfying for employees than one large promotion (with the sum of the benefits of the 3 being equal to the 1)
- Connectedness: the social network around you. For employees, for example, the number of friends at work is a strong predictor of how engaged an employee is with their work
- Vision/Meaning: feeling like you’re involved in something bigger than yourself — beyond money/profits/being the best
8. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
A useful, thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the theory and practice of habits. Although not a particularly profound epiphany, I’ve come to realize that habits are the cornerstone of success, however we choose to define it. And Duhigg, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, provides a habit framework that I’ve come to love: the cue, routine, reward loop.
- The cue: some sort of triggers that sends your brain into autopilot in search of a reward, like feeling tired after a long day’s work
- The routine: your brain executing some sort of physical, mental or emotional behavior, like going out for a drink with colleagues after a long day’s work
- The reward: a positive result (broadly defined) which reinforces the loop, like socializing or the relaxing effect of alcohol
Understanding this loop goes a long way in changing our habits. But because the habits are so hard-wired, it’s usually much harder to quit a habit cold turkey than to simply modify it. The trick, then, is to keep the cue and the reward, but to substitute the routine itself. If you’re muttering easier said than done, then a) you’re right, and b) read the book.
Countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward — craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment- — will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
9. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
Look, I can’t say this was a riveting read. It’s long, it drones sometimes and often repeats itself. But it’s totally worth putting up with. Foster Wallace liked to say that he wants his readers to work for their dinner, and in this case, it is a dinner very much worth the toil (it helps that the language itself is actually quite simple). Seneca’s letters to Lucilius, who may or may not have existed, are chock-full of very quotable, sometimes familiar, but always important universal truths.
Seneca places much emphasis on the importance of virtue, and the ability of reason to triumph over any calamity. I also quite like his idea of preparing ourselves for discomfort and challenges by simulating them or ruminating over them. This, along with Tim Ferriss (who’s a huge Seneca fanboy), inspired me to adopt a monthly Seneca day, where I eat very little, avoid using technology, wake up super early, and don’t socialize much.
The point is not to learn to love discomfort, but more to realize that discomfort, which is at the foundation of so many of our fears, really isn’t so bad. It’s been an awesome experience so far— hit me up if you wanna chat about it.
There’s so much good stuff here, I couldn’t pick one favorite:
- Beasts avoid the dangers they see, and then they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves over that which is to come as well as over that which is past… memory recalls the tortures of fears, while foresight anticipates them. The present alone can make no man wretched.
- This, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom: that deed and word should be in accord, that a man should be equal to himself under all conditions.
- You say ‘but the troubles are serious’. What? Is it for this purpose that we are strong, that we may have light burdens to bear?
10. How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard
Did I actually read any of the books above? Who knows. But if you too want to make yourself seem like a voracious reader, culturally attuned to the intellectual currents of the day without doing any of the actual work, this is the book for you.
Bayard’s treatise is really well done: it is much less Buzzfeed and much more an academic deconstruction of what it means to read (or not read) with many literary examples from books he may or may not have read. It’s pretty tongue-in-cheek, so don’t expect anything in the way of practical tips to seeming smart or well-read. Also, the fact that he’s a professor of literature makes things all the spicier.
Truth destined for others is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something attainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultivated, which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves.